Clarence Fernandes is an Indian national but one whose heart belongs in Rwanda: Call him a friend of Rwanda.
For the last ten years or so, Fernandes’s name has been a regular fixture in this newspaper, where he pens frequent opinions and letters to the editor on topical issues he is passionate about.
This has led many that follow his writings to wonder loudly whether he is such a patriotic Rwandan, or whether he is paid by the Government of Rwanda to do public relations on its behalf. Yet none of the above is true.
By his own admission, Fernandes writes as many as four letters to the editor in a good week.
“I write about tourism primarily, but generally I will pick up my ‘pen’ to write when I see something topical,” he explains.
In one of his most recent letters, he wrote about the need to export Rwanda Day celebrations to India where he hails from, “because Rwanda Day is like the signature event in the Rwanda government calendar in terms of the country’s exposure in the international arena,” he explains when we meet for this interview at the Grand Legacy Hotel in Kigali on Wednesday night.
“We already have a direct RwandAir flight to Mumbai so this is very possible,” he added.
Like any other foreigner, he did not know much about Rwanda until his first encounter with the country:
That was in 2007, and interestingly it wasn’t even on Rwandan soil.
“I was at the World Travel Market in London in November 2007 –that’s when I met the then Prime Minister of Rwanda, Bernard Makuza. It was a big travel expo and I was there as part of the Indian delegation and there was an Indian travel agent based in Kigali who had a travel company called Kibuku Tours –he came to me and said he was also from Mumbai but had settled in Rwanda. Then he told me that the Prime Minister of Rwanda was coming to his pavilion and invited me over so I went there.”
His newfound Indian friend then invited Fernandes to come to Rwanda and check the place out.
n June 2008, he travelled down to Rwanda with a small group of eight people from India, to attend the first East African Community Investment Conference in Kigali:
“That was my first visit to Rwanda,” he recalls with nostalgia.
At the time he owned a small company called Claven Marketing Services.
“I represented the Indonesia Tourism Board, Malaysia Tourism Board, Hong Kong Tourist Association, and I’ve represented a German hotel chain called World Hotels which used to run 350 hotels all over the world at the time –all under Claven Marketing.”
But upon his first trip to Rwanda, he formed a new company, Rwanda Renaissance. He explains that “Claven Marketing Services was more broad based, so basically Rwanda Renaissance zoomed down on Rwanda”.
“Rwanda Renaissance is basically an organization mandated to promote tourism, trade, investment and culture between India and Rwanda. Basically what I do is I look at opportunities if there’s an event to bring a delegation from India to Rwanda,” he explains.
That is exactly what happened in 2008 when he led a delegation of eight people from India for the first East African Community Investment Conference in Kigali:
If anything, it was that trip that opened his eyes to a side of Rwanda he had never imagined, hence his decision to stay close.
“We were eight but all staying in different hotels because of the budget. I was staying at a small hotel called Gorillas Hotel in Kiyovu while the big shots were staying in Mille Collines and other hotels.
As a tour leader and coordinator my first concern was how do I get in touch with these eight people staying in three different hotels because calling from the hotels would attract extra charges. Then as we came out each of us was given a local SIM card with enough preloaded talk time provided you didn’t make many long distance calls.
With those eight SIM cards I could coordinate the entire group while seated in my hotel room. So that was the first positive incentive I got in this country. I’d attended so many conferences all over the world but never had I got a local SIM card with prepaid credit. That’s what is called smart marketing.”
The East African Community Investment conference had been organized by the then Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency (RIEPA), now Rwanda Development Board (RDB). At the time, Francis Gatare was the Director General while Clare Akamanzi was his deputy.
“I met them and others and they were all warm and friendly so that enabled me to have a total mindset change. When Saturday morning came I wanted to go out and do a little sight-seeing and when I asked for a cab, I was told I couldn’t go out and when I asked why, I was told it was Umuganda.
So I got to learn that the city remains clean partly because of this monthly communal cleaning exercise. That is something else that opened up my mind and made me conclude that this is a nice place, and that’s how I started bringing small groups from India to Rwanda.”
Emboldened by this show of hospitality, Fernandes decided to open new frontiers:
“One day I sent a message to John Gara, the then CEO of RDB telling him I had never been out of Kigali and he sent me a ticket and put me in the best hotels for ten days and I did a full tour of Rwanda. On the last day I told him I wanted to represent RDB and in 2012 I became the India representative for RDB. He knew me a couple of years already when I was writing in The New Times and bringing small delegations of tourists to Rwanda. I was working from Mumbai but coming to Rwanda about three times a year.”
“The assignment ended last year when they closed down three or four RDB offices in different parts of the world,” he explains further.
Returning to Rwanda:
Fernandes is currently in Rwanda where he recently led a delegation of six, including a doctor, a musician, an educationist and a social media entrepreneur. The group visited under the auspices of the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Management (MIDIMAR), and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). They came to take part in activities to mark the World Refugee Day, June 20th.
“We had a very satisfying visit. We visited two camps –Kiziba Refugee Camp in Western Province where sixty classrooms were inaugurated by ADRA and handed over to the UNHCR and we also visited the Mahama Refugee Camp.”
Fernandes’s vision is to see reverse traffic –Rwandans visiting India.
“For instance there’s going to be an event in Mumbai in February next year and Rwanda Rennaissance is working towards taking a delegation from Rwanda to India. What happens is that we’re going to have refugees bring their produce and exhibit and sell over there. The expo happens every year in Mumbai but it’s the first time we’ll be having a Made in Rwanda stand. So we’re looking at a nice Rwanda pavilion after seeing the amazing work which refugees have done. We saw some of the products produced by the refugees at the camp and it’s amazing –and that would be a good platform to sell in India.”